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Natalia Ginzburg: Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings; The Things We Used to Say)

It’s called a novel but it is really a biography of Ginzburg’s family as seen through a novelist’s eyes. Ginzburg is clearly the poet of the nuclear family for, whatever she writes – fiction or non-fiction – the nuclear family will play a big part and her view will generally be that it is a good thing. In this novel, if we are to call it that, nothing spectacular happens or, when it is does (the rise of fascism, the imprisonment and murder of her husband by the fascists), it is treated in an almost matter-of-fact manner. We learn of her growing up in Sicily with a father who is dominating and controlling (condemning Ginzburg and her siblings for everything, from their table manners to their relationships with the opposite sex) but for whom she clearly feels considerable affection. We see the rise of fascism, the move of the family to Turin, the anti-fascist activities of her family, her meeting with Professor Ginzburg, who will become her husband but who will be arrested and killed for his anti-fascist activities, the development of her own career, both as a writer and publisher, her trials and tribulations during the war when her husband is in prison and she is left to bring up two young children and, finally the end of the war and a new life.

While the historical background of fascism is important in this novel, Ginzburg’s style is to treat it as something out there. Her whole focus is on the family and their activities, the whole action revolves around the family. Though we meet many other people – from Adriano Olivetti (of the typewriter family) to Cesare Pavese – they are almost incidental. As the title implies, what happens between the family members – their internal dialogue – is what matters to Ginzburg.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1963 by Einaudi
First English translation 1967 by Dutton
Translated by D.M. Low (Family Sayings); Judith Woolf (The Things We Used to Say); Jenny McPhee (Family Lexicon)